Offensive line to get another shake up

BECAUSE OF THE VOLUME of injuries on WSU's offensive line this season, it appeared at times that starters were named by default. But with many of those players returning for Saturday's game against Notre Dame in San Antonio, there's a new concept: competition.

The interior of the line is set. Senior Kenny Alfred has been a four-year mainstay at center, and coach Paul Wulff said that sophomore B.J. Guerra and junior Zack Williams are as good as any guards in the conference.

Williams, who had not played since suffering a high ankle sprain Sept. 12 against Hawaii, started and played the entire game during last week's 49-17 loss at California. Guerra played all but the first series after being out since suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee Sept. 19 against Southern Methodist.

"There's no reason why those guys shouldn't take a big step in their second game back," Wulff said during his Tuesday news conference.

WHILE THOSE PLAYERS ARE ENTRENCHED as starters, both tackle spots are open for the taking. Redshirt freshman Tyson Pencer and true freshman Alex Reitnouer will contend for the job on the left side. Junior right tackle Micah Hannam, who has started every game this season, will compete with sophomore Steven Ayers for his spot. Ayers started at both left tackle and left guard before suffering a sprained ankle Sept. 26 at USC.

Wulff said the competition and players returning from injury will help the offense tremendously. Besides providing more time for true freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel, he said it also will allow the Cougars to be more dynamic with their play calling.

Just don't expect WSU to use the popular Wildcat scheme, which is a variation of the single-wing formation. Wulff said the Cougars lack the depth at running back and still are trying to master their own hurry-up offense.

Despite that, Wulff said he saw offensive progress against Cal. Tuel, in his third start, completed 28 of 42 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns. It was the second-most passing yards ever by a WSU freshman behind Drew Bledsoe, who had 385 against Arizona in 1990.

Senior running back Dwight Tardy also completed his only pass for 31 yards, but Tuel took all the snaps besides that one. Wulff tried to redshirt Tuel, but said the Fresno, Calif. product simply outperformed sophomore Marshall Lobbestael and senior Kevin Lopina in practice.

"When we recruited Jeff a year ago, we knew he was kind of a hidden gem," Wulff said. "It got the point where he could help us grow more than other guys."

HE SAID A SIMILAR SITUATION is occurring at running back where sophomore Logwone Mitz and true freshman Carl Winston have displaced Tardy. Mitz started against Cal and had 13 yards on eight carries. Winston led the Cougars with 51 yards on eight carries.

"Carl Winston is coming on," Wulff said. "Logwone Mitz has shown some flashes running the ball. Each time those young guys take reps, they seem to get better every week. I think these other guys are doing some things better on a consistent basis."

But the passing game might be the Cougars' best opportunity to score on Notre Dame (5-2). The No. 25 Irish ranked 117th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing yards allowed. That statistic can be a little deceiving -- it is dependent on how often teams pass the ball, but Notre Dame still allows 8.2 yards per passing attempt.

"We've got to have a good plan as coaches," Wulff said. "If (Tuel) can recognize it ... we've got an opportunity to do some really good things. We can take a really big step this week."

He said his youthful team simply must be more consistent to make that happen.

"I would like to think our strength is throwing the ball, but we've only done it for one game," Wulff said.

He said a lot of the Cougars' ability to perform offensively will be dependent on quality play along the offensive line. That is because the Irish use a zone-pressure scheme on defense.

"They do a lot of movement in their defensive line," he said. "They really keep you on your toes."

DEFENSIVELY, THE COUGARS (1-6) will have plenty to contend with. Notre Dame ranks 15th nationally in total offense with an average of 438.4 yards per game. It begins with junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has completed 150 of 230 passes for 2,050 yards, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions this year. Wulff said Clausen is the best quarterback his team has seen this year.

"He's got a good arm," he said. "It looks like he's really comfortable in their offense with his experience."

Clausen's top wide receiver is junior Golden Tate, who has 847 yards and eight touchdowns on 52 receptions this season.

"He seems to be one of those guys who can do a lot of things," Wulff said. "He seems to make big plays when they need them and there's not a lot of guys who can do that."

While Wulff said his defense cannot just focus on Tate because the Irish have enough talent on offense to hurt WSU in other ways. But he still expects improvement from his team. Cal had 559 yards of total offense against the Cougars.

"Whether it's a conference game or not ... we're just trying to get better," he said. "We want to take certain positives as stepping stones. This game is as important as any game on the schedule."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Sophomore Mike Ledgerwood started at middle linebacker last week, while Alex Hoffman-Ellis saw time after returning from a staph infection. Both will contend for the starting position with sophomore Louis Bland likely out for the season. Bland suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee during spring practices and aggravated the injury before the Cal game.

    "There's a high, high probability that (his) season is over," Wulff said, adding that Bland will soon undergo exploratory surgery. "He's probably been our best football player, top to bottom, on our defense in the last year and a half."

    Wulff said Bland also will need to have some cartilage work in his left knee to stabilize it before he plays again.

  • Wulff said junior running back James Montgomery, who had surgery to correct acute compartment syndrome in his left leg in September, is not eligible for a medical redshirt unless he is able to return in 2010 and then subsequently becomes injured early in the season again. Montgomery utilized his redshirt year as a freshman in 2006 at Cal and then missed the '08 season after transferring to WSU.

  • Junior wide receiver Johnny Forzani's eligibility also has been clarified. Forzani transferred to WSU out of West Hills College in Canada, and the coaching staff initially thought he was a sophomore. But Forzani spent enough time at the school to make him a junior, and Wulff classified the chances of getting a third-year for Forzani as "remote."

    Wulff said he has been impressed with Forzani, but said he still needs to make significant improvement in his blocking and route running. He said Forzani, who had a team-high 116 yards and a touchdown on four receptions against Cal, is one of the fastest players in the Pac-10.

  • Wulff said WSU will travel Friday to San Antonio and likely will not do any sightseeing. He said the only time to do that will come before the game, which is not prudent.

  • Sophomore safety Eric Block (ulcerative colitis), junior offensive lineman Brian Danaher (concussion) and senior defensive lineman Kevin Kooyman (knee) all are out indefinitely.

  • The game will put WSU on national TV for only the second time this season. The last time was at USC. Wulff said he is not concerned about the lack of exposure affecting recruiting.

    "We already have 16 commitments and we don't have a lot of room left," he said, adding that WSU likely will sign 22 to 23 players. "I think if people start investigating our program (they'll see) there's a bright future. As we win moving forward, the TV opportunities will be there."

  • WSU sports information director Bill Stevens said the school has sold close to its 4,000 allotted tickets against Notre Dame. The Irish received 25,000 tickets with the rest being sold by the Alamodome, which seats 65,000. Notre Dame has a large following across the nation, including in Texas. Wulff said he expects "a certain level of a bowl (game) feeling" with the game held at a neutral site on Halloween.

  • Eastern Washington had its one-year playoff ban lifted Tuesday by the NCAA. The Associated Press reported that other penalties issued in February, including the loss of two scholarships and one assistant coach, will remain in effect. The penalties occurred between 2003-07 under Wulff. See HERE for details.

    "It's the right thing," he said. "The penalty for that I don't believe was warranted in the first place."


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